Fred Grimm

Neo-Confederates bring their revised version of history to Hollywood

Latter-day Confederates were at it again this week, descending on Hollywood City Hall, come to argue their sanitized version of the Civil War. You know … the version that downgrades slavery from raison d’être for the bloody secessionist movement to a kind of afterthought.

“These guys were not fighting for slavery,” Moses Rogers told the city commission on Wednesday. “That wasn’t what the war was about.”

You can believe Rogers, or you can believe Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson. “If there had been no slavery, there would have been no war, and ultimately what the Confederacy was fighting for was to preserve a nation based on a social system that incorporated slavery. Had that not been the case, there would have been no war,” McPherson said in a 1994 interview on C-SPAN. “That's an issue that a lot of Southern whites today find hard to accept,” he said.

That acceptance remained elusive Wednesday evening when Rogers and several other members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans came to town to defend Hollywood’s meager excuse for confederate memorials. Other southern cities have been wrestling with what to do about flags, statues and institutional names celebrating the Confederacy, especially since a twisted racist with a rebel flag fetish massacred nine worshipers at a black church in Charleston two years ago.

Just last month, Orlando ignored angry rebel flag-waving demonstrators and moved a statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park to an inconspicuous cemetery. Protesters in New Orleans were so threatening that masked city workers moved monuments celebrating Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard in the dark of night.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was unflinching. “These statues are not just stone and metal,” Landrieu said, in a speech for the ages. “They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy — ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Hollywood’s beleaguered civic leaders must wish they had something as simple as a statue to jettison. Instead, they’ve got to deal with street signs. Three residential streets in western neighborhoods are named Lee, Forrest and Hood, honoring Confederate generals. (Nathan Bedford Forrest, adding to the insult, has also been identified as a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.) But rechristening would mean altering the postal addresses of some 1,600 residents.

It became apparent during Wednesday’s meeting that the commissioners were far more concerned about the logistics of the name change — city rules don’t make it easy — than complaints about “erasing history.” Their hesitancy, as a tearful Vice Mayor Traci Callari said, had to do about disrupting the lives of folks living along those streets. “But we can do it.”

That wasn’t assurance enough for a cabal of mostly young, loud and impatient social activists who came to demand immediate action. The commission meeting had been preceded by a slur-hurling yelling match between the two factions outside city hall (State Rep. Shevrin Jones claimed pro-Confederates called him “a monkey” and other racist insults.) Five persons were arrested before demonstrators filed inside to deliver speeches during the dreaded public comment period.

Never mind that the commissioners promised they’d find a way to excise Lee, Forrest and Hood from the city maps. Mayor Josh Levy asked the protesters to have “patience in the process.” He said, “I know Hollywood. We’ll do the right thing.”

But what an odd place for such an argument. Hollywood didn’t exist until more than six decades after the Civil War, when a northerner developed the town and marketed it to Yankees, mostly New Yorkers.

According to town historian Joan Mickelson, the original plans named streets in the western, mostly black neighborhoods after major American cities. It’s unclear when they were renamed to celebrate Forrest, Lee and John Bell Hood. Mickelson suspects racist motives. However, a number of parallel streets were renamed for Union generals: Sherman, Meade, Custer, Sheridan, George S. Greene and Admiral David Farragut, along with World War I hero General Black Jack Pershing (and, overlooked in the controversy, Confederate General James P. Simms).

Besides, the state of Florida doesn’t have much of a Confederate heritage to get riled up about. (Although both the Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, and Jefferson Davis’ birthday, June 3, are defined in Florida statutes as “legal holidays.”) When the state joined the Confederacy, Florida’s population was barely 140,000, including 60,000 slaves.

The progeny of those original residents have long since been overwhelmed by immigrants from Yankee states and foreign nations. (Toto, you’re not in Mississippi, anymore.)

The state’s only notable Civil War battle occurred at Olustee in North Florida and ended in a shameful, racist atrocity, when the southern victors slaughtered scores of black northern troops as they attempted to surrender.

Except, actual history is just too damn inconvenient for those who would wrap themselves in the Confederate flag and pretend the conflict wasn’t about racism or human bondage. Let them chew on the informed recollection of Confederate cavalry hero John Mosby of Mosby’s Rangers. “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the north about,” he wrote in 1894. “I’ve never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.”